Being there isn't everything for college football fans

The world keeps changing, and it's hard for the college game to keep up

Iowa's student body was well-represented at the Hawkeyes' game vs. Northern Illinois last September at Kinnick Stadium (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)
Iowa's student body was well-represented at the Hawkeyes' game vs. Northern Illinois last September at Kinnick Stadium (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

I have a neighbor who read Scott Doctherman's recent Gazette story about Iowa's inability to sell out its 2014 home football games (so far) and said what I suspect many fans think and do:

“I used to go to the games,” the neighbor said, “but now I just watch it at home on my big-screen. My refrigerator's right there.”

That's as simple as it is for a lot of people. Talk about the “game-day experience” all you want, but for people who lead busy lives and to whom time and convenience are as important as cost, watching games from the comfort of home may have a lot more plusses than journeying to Kinnick Stadium to do so.

Baseball and hockey are better seen in person than on television. Football is not.

That's nothing new, but it's brought home more and more by various factors. It starts, of course, with time and money.

It takes 3.5 hours tops to watch a game on TV, and that's if you choose to watch the whole thing. If you go to a game in person, it's highway time, it's parking time, it's ticket costs, it's transportation costs. It's a heck of a commitment financially and time-wise. It always has been, but time is more precious than ever for people, especially people with shorter attention-spans than any who have come before them.

The seven Iowa home games are the social events of the year for many of the attendees. They wouldn't want to be anywhere else on those days.

But not everyone feels that way. Others would rather have the high-definition home experience, with better views, and a clearer understanding of what they're watching thanks to the network that televises the game. Others want to feel the game they're paying to witness is special and the experience is likewise.

For Iowa to have about 10,000 tickets left for its game against Ball State tells me the casual fan is simply being judicious. Ball State, despite its 10 wins last season, isn't a name that has ever been on a football marquee.

However, the Hawkeyes are hardly in dire straits when it comes to advance sales. When it comes to the four Big Ten home games on Iowa's schedule, it ranged from 5,166 tickets left for Wisconsin to 7,294 for Northwestern as of last Friday. If those were the final totals of unsold ducats, it would be surprising and jarring for this particular program. They are totals some Big Ten programs would love to have, including Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue of the Big Ten West.

But if Iowa cuts through its nonconference schedule like a hot knife through margarine, the remaining tickets will fly off the shelf. Winning moves product in sports. Always has, always will.

Something that is and will be a concern in Hawkeyeland and at other ports all over college football is the future. Will the next generation of fans and donors — today's children and young adults — have loyalty to the sport and a deep need to attend games rather than watch them on whatever devices with which they watch them?

I tend to have doubts. People are living in their own heads via their own smartphones as it is. It's harder and harder to get people — particularly children and young adults — to pull away from those phones that contain their worlds.

That comes from someone who finds it harder and harder to pull away from his own phone. One day, I may even use it to make a phone call.

So Iowa and everyone else in big-time college football know the game-day experience has to be made as enticing as possible for customers, or those customers could be lost for good.

This Sports Business Daily story from last December illustrates what a national survey of 75,000 fans of FBS teams said about going to games.

Two things jumped out in red lights: Fans don't feel sufficiently valued by their program, and many game-day amenities in aren't keeping up with those found in other sports.

Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta said last week that changes are afoot in Kinnick in that area of amenities. One big problem area is the loss of student-ticket sales. It's a problem all over the nation, even at Alabama.

But here's another obvious problem: The economy. Students and recent college graduates aren't flush with cash. No, they never have been. But it's more and more difficult for college grads to land jobs right out of college, to get on solid financial footing.

When less than 7,000 student season tickets have been sold this season at Iowa as compared to 10,400 in the past, that's a problem for the program. Because that's a lot fewer people who walk away from the school with game-day experiences tucked fondly under their graduation mortar boards, a lot fewer people prone to feel a connection to the football program that they want to extend through their adult lives.

Things come and go when it's sports, entertainment, or life itself. What a generation or a few generations held dearly won't necessarily be held in the same regard by future generations.

Iowa will have big crowds this fall, crowds that will probably keep the program in the nation's Top 25 in attendance. If the Hawkeyes are title-contenders in the Big Ten West, the old stadium will be jumping in October and November.

But there was a time when Iowa fans would have looked at those November home dates with Wisconsin and Nebraska and told themselves they better get tickets a long ways in advance for fear of being shut out.

That isn't the case in 2014. Maybe it never will be again.

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